Wireless Internet Access: 3G vs. WiFi
The two most important phenomena impacting telecommunications over the past
decade have been the explosive parallel growth of both the Internet and mobile telephone
services. The Internet brought the benefits of data communications to the masses with
email, the Web, and eCommerce; while mobile service has enabled "follow-meanywhere/
always on" telephony. The Internet helped accelerate the trend from voicecentric to data-centric networking. Data already exceeds voice traffic and the data share continues to grow. Now, these two worlds are converging. This convergence offers the benefits of new interactive multimedia services coupled to the flexibility and mobility of wireless. To realize the full potential of this convergence, however, we need broadband access connections. What precisely constitutes "broadband" is, of course, a moving target, but at a minimum, it should support data rates in the hundreds of kilobits per second as opposed to the 50Kbps enjoyed by 80% of the Internet users in the US who still rely on dial-up modems over wireline circuits, or the even more anemic 10-20Kbps typically supported by the current generation of available mobile data services. While the need for broadband wireless Internet access is widely accepted, there remains great uncertainty and disagreement as to how the wireless Internet future will evolve. The goal of this article is to compare and contrast two technologies that are likely to play important roles: Third Generation mobile ("3G") and Wireless Local Area Networks ("WLAN"). Specifically, we will focus on 3G as embodied by the IMT-2000 family of standards2 versus the WLAN technology embodied by the WiFi or 802.11b standard, which is the most popular and widely deployed of the WLAN technologies. We use these technologies as reference points to span what we believe are two fundamentally different philosophies for how wireless Internet access might evolve. The former represents a natural evolution and extension of the business models of existing mobile providers. These providers have already invested billions of dollars purchasing the spectrum licenses to support advanced data services and equipment makers have been gearing up to produce the base stations and handsets for wide-scale deployments of 3G services. In contrast, the WiFi approach would leverage the large installed base of WLAN infrastructure already in place.3 In focusing on 3G and WiFi, we are ignoring many other technologies that are likely to be important in the wireless Internet such as satellite services, LMDS, MMDS, or other fixed wireless alternatives. We also ignore technologies such as BlueTooth or HomeRF which have at times been touted as potential rivals to WiFi, at least in home networking environments.4 Moreover, we will not discuss the relationship between various transitional, or "2.5G" mobile technologies such as GPRS or EDGE, nor will we discuss the myriad possibilities for "4G" mobile technologies.5 While all of these are interesting, we have only limited space and our goal is to tease out what we believe are important themes/trends/forces shaping the industry structure for next generation wireless services, rather than to focus on the technologies themselves. We use 3G and WiFi as shorthand for broad classes of related technologies that have two quite distinct industry origins and histories.
II. Some background on WiFi and 3G6
In this section, we provide a brief overview of the two technologies to help orient
the reader. We will discuss each of the technologies in turn.
3G is a technology for mobile service providers. Mobile services are provided by
service providers that own and operate their own wireless networks and sell mobile
services to end-users, usually on a monthly subscription basis. Mobile service providers7
use licensed spectrum to provide wireless telephone coverage over some relatively large
contiguous geographic serving area. Historically, this might have included a metropolitan
area. Today it may include the entire country. From a users perspective, the key feature of
mobile service is that it offers (near) ubiquitous and continuous coverage. That is, a consumer can carry on a telephone conversation while driving along a highway at 100
Km/hour. To support this service, mobile operators maintain a network of interconnected
and overlapping mobile base stations that hand-off customers as those customers move
among adjacent cells. Each mobile base station may support users up to several kilometers away. The cell towers are connected to each other by a backhaul network that
also provides interconnection to the wireline Public Switched Telecommunications Network (PSTN) and other services. The mobile system operator owns the end-to-end network from the base stations to the backhaul network to the point of interconnection to
the PSTN (and, perhaps, parts thereof). The first mobile services were analog. Although mobile services began to emerge in the 1940s, the first mass market mobile services in the U.S. were based on the AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone Service) technology. This is what is commonly referred to as first generation wireless. The FCC licensed two operators in each market to offer AMPS service in the 800-900MHz band. In the 1990s, mobile services based on digital mobile technologies us hered in the second generation (2G) of wireless services that we have today. In the U.S., these were referred to as Personal Communication Systems (PCS)8 and used technologies such as TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access), CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). From 1995 to 1997, the FCC auctioned off PCS spectrum licenses in the 1850 to 1990 MHz band. CDMA and TDMA were deployed in the various parts of the U.S., while GSM was deployed as the common standard in Europe.9 The next or Third Generation (3G) mobile technologies will support higher bandwidth digital communications and are expected to be based on one of the several standards included under the ITU's IMT-2000 umbrella of 3G standards. he chief focus of wireless mobile services has been voice telephony. However, in recent years there has been growing interest in data services as well. While data services are available over AMPS systems, these are limited to quite low data rates
WiFi is the popular name for the wireless Ethernet 802.11b standard for WLANs.
Wireline local area networks (LANs) emerged in the early 1980s as a way to allow
collections of PCs, terminals, and other distributed computing devices to share resources
and peripherals such as printers, access servers, or shared storage devices. One of the
most popular LAN technologies was Ethernet. Over the years, the IEEE has approved a
succession of Ethernet standards to support higher capacity LANs over a diverse array of
media. The 802.11x family of Ethernet standards are for wireless LANs.11 WiFi LANs operate using unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz band. The current generation of WLANs support up to 11Mbps data rates within 300 feet of the base station. Most typically, WLANs are deployed in a distributed way to offer last-fewhundred- feet connectivity to a wireline backbone corporate or campus network. Typically, the WLANs are implemented as part of a private network. The base station equipment is owned and operated by the end-user community as part of the corporate enterprise network, campus or government network. In most cases, use of the network is free to end-users (subsidized by the community as a cost of doing business, like corporate phones). Although each base station can support connections only over a range of a few hundred feet, it is possible to provide contiguous coverage over a wider area by using multiple base stations. A number of corporate business and university campuses have deployed such contiguous WLANs. Still, the WLAN technology was not designed to support high-speed hand-off associated with users moving between base station coverage areas (i.e., the problem addressed by mobile systems). In the last two years, we have seen the mergence of a number of service providers that are offering WiFi services for a fee in selected local areas such as hotels, airport lounges, and coffee shops.12 Mobilestar, which declared bankruptcy during the latter half of 2001, was one of the leaders in this area. In addition, there is a growing movement of so-called "FreeNets" where individuals or organizations are providing open access to subsidized WiFi networks. In contrast to mobile, WLANs were principally focused on supporting data communications. However, with the growing interest in supporting real-time services such as voice and video over IP networks, it is possible to support voice telephony services over WLANs.
III. How are WiFi and 3G same
From the preceding discussion, it might appear that 3G and WiFi address
completely different user needs in quite distinct markets that do not overlap. While this
was certainly more true about earlier generations of mobile services when compared with
wired LANs or earlier versions of WLANs, it is increasingly not the case. The end- user
does not care what technology is used to support his service. What matters is that both of
these technologies are providing platforms for wireless access to the Internet and other communication services. In this section we focus on the ways in which the two technologies may be thought of as similar, while in the next section we will focus on the many differences between the two.
A. Both are wireless
Both technologies are wireless which (1) avoids need to install cable drops to each device when compared to wireline alternatives; and (2) facilitates mobility. Avoiding the need to install or reconfigure local distribution cable plant can represent a significant cost savings, whether it is within a building, home, or in the last mile distribution plant of a wireline service provider. Moreover, many types of wireless infrastructure can provide scalable infrastructure when penetration will increase only slowly over time (e.g., when a new service is offered or in an overbuild scenario). New base stations are added as more users in the local area join the wireless network and cells are resized. Wireless infrastructure may be deployed more rapidly than wireline alternatives to respond to new market opportunities or changing demand. These aspects of wireless may make it attractive as an overbuild competitor to wireline local access, which has large sunk/fixed costs that vary more with the homes passed than the actual level of subscribership. The high upfront cost of installing new wireline last- mile facilities is one of the reasons why these may be a natural monopoly, at least in many locations.Wireless technologies also facilitate mobility. This includes both (1) the ability tomove devices around without aving to move cables and furniture; and (2) the ability to stay continuously connected over wider serving areas. We refer to the first as local mobility and this is one of the key advantages of WLANs over traditional wireline LANs. The second type of mobility is one of the key advantages of mobile systems such as 3G. WLANs trade the range of coverage for higher bandwidth, making them more suitable for "local hot spot" service. In contrast, 3G offers much narrower bandwidth but over a wider calling area and with more support for rapid movement between base stations. Although it is possible to cover a wide area with WiFi, it is most commonly deployed in a local area with one or a few base stations being managed as a separate WLAN. In contrast, a 3G network would include a large number of base stations operating over a wide area as an integrated wireless network to enable load sharing and uninterrupted hand-offs when subscribers move between base stations at high speeds.This has implications for the magnitude of initial nvestment required to bring up WLAN or 3G wireless service and for the network management and operations support services required to operate the networks. However, it is unclear at this time13 which type of network might be lower cost for equivalent scale deployments, either in terms of upfront capital costs (ignoring spectrum costs for now) or on-going network management costs.
B. Both are access technologies
Both 3G and WiFi are access or edge-network technologies. This means they offer alternatives to the last-mile wireline network. Beyond the last- mile, both rely on similar network connections and transmission support infrastructure. For 3G, the wireless link is from the end- user device to the cell base station which may be at a distance of up to a few kilometers, and then dedicated wireline facilities to interconnect base stations to the carrier's backbone network and ultimately to the Internet cloud. The local backhaul infrastructure of the cell provider may be offered over facilities owned by the wireless provider (e.g., microwave links) or leased from the local wireline telephone service provider (i.e., usually the incumbent local exchange carrier or ILEC). Although 3G is conceived of as an end-to-end service, it is possible to view it as an access service.14 For WiFi, the wireless link is a few hundred feet from the end-user device to the base station. The base station is then connected either into the wireline LAN or enterprise network infrastructure or to a wireline access line to a carrier's backbone network and then eventually to the Internet. For example, WiFi is increasingly finding application as a home LAN technology to enable sharing of DSL or cable modem residential broadband access services among multiple PCs in a home or to enable within-home mobility. WiFi is generally viewed as an access technology, not as an end-to-end service. Because both technologies are access technologies, we must always consider the role of backbone wireline providers that provide connectivity to the rest of the Internet and support transport within the core of the network. These wireline providers may also offer competing wireline access solutions. For example, one could ask whether an ILEC might seek to offer WiFi access as a way to compete with a 3G provider; or a 3G provider might expand their offe rings (including integrating WiFi) to compete more directly with an ILEC. Of course, the incentives for such head-to-head competition are muted if the 3G provider and ILEC (or cable modem provider) share a common corporate parent (e.g., Verizon and Verizon Wireless or Telefonica and Telefonica Moviles). Finally, focusing on the access-nature of 3G and WiFi allows us to abstract from the other elements of the value chain. Wireless services are part of an end-to-end value chain that includes, in its coarsest delineation at least (1) the Internet back bone (the cloud); (2) the second mile network providers (ILEC, mobile, cable, or a NextGen carrier); and, (3) the last mile access facilities (and, beyond them, the end-user devices). The backbone and the second mile may be wireless or wireline, but these are not principally a "wireless" challenge. It is in the last mile – the access network – that delivering mobility, bandwidth, and follow-me-anywhere/anytime services are most challenging.
C. Both offer broadband data service
Both 3G and WiFi support broadband data service, although as noted earlier, the data rate offered by WiFi (11Mbps) is substantially higher than the couple of 100 Kbps expected from 3G services. Although future generations of wireless mobile technology will support higher speeds, this will also be the case for WLANs, and neither will be likely to compete with wireline15 speeds (except over quite short distances). The key is that both will offer sufficient bandwidth to support a comparable array of services, including real-time voice, data, and streaming media, that are not currently easily supported over narrowband wireline services. (Of course, the quality of these services will be quite different as will be discussed further below.) In this sense,16 both will support "broadband" where we define this as "faster than what we had before." Both services will also support "always on" connectivity which is another very important aspect of broadband service. Indeed, some analysts believe this is even more important than the raw throughput supported.
IV. How are they different
In this section, we consider several of the important ways in which the WiFi and 3G approaches to offering broadband wireless access services are substantively different.
A. Current business models/deployment are different.
As noted above 3G represents an extension of the mobile service provider model. This is the technology of choice for upgrading existing mobile telephone services to expand capacity and add enhanced services. The basic business model is the telecommunications services model in which service providers own and manage the infrastructure (including the spectrum) and sell service on that infrastructure.17 Endcustomers typically have a onthly service contract with the 3G provider and view their payments as a recurring operating expense – analogous to regular telephone service. Not surprisingly, the 3G siness model is close to the wireline telephone business. The mindset is on long- lived capital assets, ubiquitous coverage, and service integration. Moreover, telecommunications regulatory oversight, including common carriage and interconnection rules are part of the landscape. The service is conceptualized usually as a
mass- market offering to both residential and business customers on a subscription basis. The 3G deployment and serving provisioning model is one of top-down, rticallyintegrated, and centralized planning and operation. 18 It is expected that 3G services will be provided as part of a bundled service offering, to take advantage of opportunities to implement price discrimination strategies and to exploit consumers' preferences for "onestop" shopping/single bill service. In contrast, WiFi comes out of the data communications industry (LANs) which is a by-product of the computer industry. The basic business model is one of equipment makers who sell boxes to consumers. The services provided by the equipment are free to the equipment owners. For the customers, the equipment represents a capital asset that is depreciated. While WiFi can be used as an access link, it has not heretofore been thought of as an end-to-end service. Only recently have WLANs been targeted as a mass market offering to home users. Previously, these were installed most typically in corporate or university settings. End-user customers buy the equipment and then self- install it and interconnect it to their access or enterprise network facilities. Typically, the users of WiFi networks are not charged directly for access. Service is provided free for the closed usercommunity (i.e., employees of the firm, students at the university), with the costs of providing wireless access subsidized by the firm or university. More recently, we have seen the emergence of the FreeNet movement and several service provider initiatives to offer (semi-) ubiquitous WiFi access services. Participants in the FreeNet movement are setting up WiFi base stations and allowing open access to any users with the suitable equipment to access the base station (i.e., just an 801.11b PC card in a laptop). Participants in this grass-roots movement do not charge for use of the access service (either to recover the costs of the wireless access infrastructure or the recurring costs of providing connectivity to the Internet). Because data traffic is inherently bursty and many end- users have dedicated facilities for which they pay a flat rate to connect to the Internet and because they have already incurred the cost of the wireless access equipment for their own needs, FreeNet proponents argue that
the incremental cost of supporting access is zero, and hence, the price ought to be also. While this may be true on lightly- loaded networks, it will not be the case as FreeNets become more congested and it will not be the case for traffic-variable costs upstream from the FreeNet. Moreover, if migration of consumers from paid access services to FreeNet access is significant, this will cannibalize the access revenues earned by service providers offering wireline or wireless access services. These issues raise questions about
the long-term viability of the FreeNet movement. In any case, this movement is playing an important role in raising awareness and helping to develop end-user experience with using wireless broadband access services. In addition to the FreeNet movement, there are number of service providers now looking at using WiFi as the basis for wireless access over broad geographic areas.19 Most recently, the chairman and founder of Earthlink (one of the largest ISPs in the U.S.), Sky Dayton formed a new wireless ISP called Boingo.20 Boingo's business model will be to act as a clearinghouse and backbone infrastructure provider for local service providers interested in deploying WiFi access networks. Boingo will sell end-users a monthly subscription service that Boingo would then share with the WiFi network owners to compensate them for deploying and providing the service. Boingo would handle the customer billing and marketing, building out its footprint organically, as more and more WiFi local service providers join the Boingo family of networks. Partners may include smaller ISPs, hotels, airport lounges, and other retail establishments where potential customers are likely to be interested in getting wireless access. With respect to deployment, 3G will require substantial investment in new infrastructure to upgrade existing 2G networks, however, when deployed by an existing mobile provider, much of the 2G infrastructure (e.g., towers and backhaul network) will
remain useable. For WiFi, it is hoped that deployment can piggy-back on the large existing base of WLAN equipment already in the field. In both cases, end- users will need to buy (or be subsidized) to purchase suitable interface devices (e.g., PC cards for 3G or WiFi access). In contrast to 3G, WiFi wireless access can emerge in a decentralized, bottom-up fashion (although it is also possible for this to be centrally coordinated and driven by a wireline or mobile service provider). While the prevailing business model for 3G services and infrastructure is vertically integrated, this need not be the case for WiFi. This opens up the possibility of a more heterogeneous and complex industry value chain. One impediment to the growth of paid but decentralized WiFi service offerings is consumer's preference for one-stop shopping/single monthly billing. Boingo's model offers one approach to overcoming this resistance. Alternative approaches that are under research consideration (i.e., not commercially viable today) include using some form of micropayments (e.g., eCash or credit card billing). It is also well-known that consumers have a demonstrated preference for flat rate billing, which may cause problems in a decentralized WiFi provisioning model. If backhaul costs are traffic variable (e.g., suppose rate for Internet connection from base station to cloud varies with traffic), then offering flat rate service may be perceived as too risky for the base station owner. Once again, Boingo's approach suggests how an intermediary willing to aggregate customers nd take advantage of the scale economies associated with serving a larger customer base (e.g., with respect to retail costs and backhaul traffic management costs) can play an important role in facilitating the emergence of decentralized networking infrastructur e.
B. Status of technology development different.
The two technologies differ with respect to their stage of development in a number of ways. These are discussed in the following subsections.
It is also possible to compare the two technologies with respect to the extent to which they are standardized. Broadly, it appears that the formal standards picture for 3G is perhaps more clear than for WLAN. For 3G, there is a relatively small family of internatio nally sanctioned standards, collectively referred to as WCDMA. However, there is still uncertainty as to which of these (or even if multiple ones) will be selected by service providers. In contrast, WiFi is one of the family of continuously evolving 802.11x
wireless Ethernet standards, which is itself one of many WLAN technologies that are under development. Although it appears that WiFi is emerging as the market winner, there is still a substantial base of HomeRF and other open standard and proprietary technologies that are installed and continue to be sold to support WLANs. Thus, it may appear that the standards picture for WLANs is less clear than for 3G, but the market pressure to select the 802.11x family of technologies appears much less ambiguous – at least today. Because ubiquitous WLAN access coverage would be constructed from the aggregation of many independent WLANs, there is perhaps a greater potential for the adoption of heterogeneous WLAN technologies than might be the case with 3G. With 3G, although competing service providers may adopt heterogeneous and incompatible versions of 3G, there is little risk that there will be incompatibilities within a carriers own3G network. Of course in the context of a mesh of WLANs, reliance on IP as the basic transport layer may reduce compatibility issues at the data networking level, although these could be significant at the air interface (i.e., RF level). Unless coordinated, this could be a significant impediment to realizing scale economies and network externality benefits in a bottom- up, decentralized deployment of WiFi local access infrastructure.
2. Service/Business Model
3G is more developed than WiFi as a business and service model. It represents an extension of the existing service provider industry to new services, and as such, does not represent a radical departure from underlying industry structure. The key market uncertainties and portions of the valuation that remain undeveloped are the upstream equipment and application/content supplier markets and ultimate consumer demand. In contrast, WiFi is more developed with respect to the upstream supplier markets, at least with respect to WLAN equipment which has become commoditized.27 Moreover, consumer demand – certainly business demand and increasingly residential broadband home user demand – for the WLAN equipment is also well-established. However, commercialization of WiFi services as an access service is still in its early stages with the emergence of Boingo and others. Of course, both 3G and WiFi access face great supplier and demand uncertainty with respect to what the next killer applications will be and how these services may be used once a rich set of interactive, multimedia services become available. There are also some form factor issues that may impact the way these services will be used. Initially, it seems likely that the first 3G end-user devices will be extensions of the cell phone while the first WiFi end- user devices are PCs. Of course, there are also 3G PC cards to allow the PC to be used as an interface device for PCs, and with the evolution of Internet appliances (post-PC devices), we should expect to see new types of devices connecting to both types of networks. However, for mobility, we should expect to continue to see constraints on size and power requirements that will impose constraintson the services that are offered. Without an external source of power, end-user devices communicating with a 3G base station at a long distance but with reduced bandwidth or communicating with a WiFi base station at a short distance but at a much higher data rate will both consume batteries quickly. And, adding visual displays and non-voice input capabilities to small cell phones, or telephony capabilities to PCs will present form factor challenges tha t will need to be addressed.
V. Some implications for industry structure and public policy
In this section we consider some of the implications that emerge from the preceding analysis, as well as offer some speculations on the possible implications for industry structure, competition, and public policy.
A. WiFi is good for competition
One implication that emerges from the above analysis is that success of WiFi wireless local access alternatives is likely to be good for local competition. First, if only 3G survives, then it is less likely that we will see non- vertically- integrated, decentralized ervice provisioning. And, the higher entry costs associated with acquiring licensed spectrum and the need to construct a geographically-larger network to begin offering service will limit the number of firms that compete in the market. Of course, this does not mean that wireless access services would not be competitive – there may be more than enough competition among existing mobile providers to preclude the exercise of market power. However, there is also the possibility that the few 3G providers will become fewer still through mergers, and when coupled to the market power of wireline local exchange carriers, this could provide a powerful nexus for the continuation of monopoly power in last mile facilities. Obviously, the firms that have a potential opportunity to establish such market power – the mobile providers and the local exchange carriers (that own asignificant share of the mobile operators) – have a powerful incentive to collude to establish monopoly control over mixed wireless and wireline services. Second, if bo th 3G and WiFi survive, then the diversity of viable networkinginfrastructure strategies will be conducive to greater facilities-based competition. Third, success of the WiFi service model could help unlock the substantial investment in private networking infrastructure that could be used as the basis for constructing an alternative infrastructure to the PSTN and cable wireline networks. As noted above, this will require adding the necessary business functionality and technical support to enable base station owners to bill for WiFi service. Once this is developed, the opportunity to create novel new ways to leverage the existing infrastructure investment will be increased. Fourth, if only the WiFi service model survives, then we would expect this to be inherently more competitive because of he lower entry barriers for setting up local access services. The use of unlicensed spectrum means that property rights over the spectrum cannot be used to exclude potential entrants, although congestion – if not appropriately managed – could be just as effective in limiting competition. However, at the margin, the threat of competitive entry would limit the ability of any single or small group of providers establishing bottleneck control over the last mile wireless access infrastructure. Of course, since the WiFi model does depend on wireline infrastructure to connect to the Internet backbone, it is possible that wireline carriers could effectively leverage their control over wireline access facilities to adversely affect wireless access competition. Since many of the largest mobile service providers are affiliated with wireline providers, there is likely to be an incent ive to discriminate against WiFi carriers if these are seen as competitors to either 3G or wireline services. Fifth, the more flexible nature of the WiFi model means that it an seed a more complex array of potential business models that could fuel competition both at the retail level in services and at the wholesale level in alternative infrastructure. or example, WiFi could emerge as an extension of FreeNets, transmogrified into user-subsidized community networks, or via third party aggregators such as Boingo. These networks could be in direct competition to 3G services. Another alternative might be for WiFi to be used as the last few hundred feet access technology for alternative local loop facilities (e.g., a municipally-owned fiber network). In this mode, WiFi could reduce the deployment costs of overbuilders. A more generalized version of this scenario is any form of subsidized deployment, where the entity subsidizing creation of the WiFi net might be a university (campus net), a government entity (municipal net), or a business enterprise net). The lower costs of deploying wireless as compared to installing new wireline cabling plant may make reduce the adoption costs of such a strategy, thereby increasingly the likelihood of their adoption.
B. WiFi and 3G can complement each other for a mobile provider
Yet another alternative might be for WiFi to be integrated into 3G type networks. Actually, this seems like the most likely scenario since there are compelling reasons for why these two technologies may be used together.28 Each of the technologies has distinct dvantages over the other that would allow each to offer higher quality services under disparate conditions. Putting the two together would allow a service provider to offer a ider set of more valuable services. The obvious adopter of such a strategy would be a mobile firm since it is easier for 3G to adopt WiFi and incorporate it into its networking strategy than for a WiFi facilities provider to go the other way. The reasons for this are several. First, there is the asymmetry in entry costs discussed earlier. Second, the natural ability of the 3G to implement bundled service offerings will make them more likely to be able to take advantage of a more complex infrastructure platform that will allow them to offer bundled services. Integrating 3G and WiFi networks provides the opportunity to offer both ubiquitous coverage with good voice telephony support (still the killer app for interactive communication networks) while providing local "hot spot" connectivity in high demand areas (airports, hotels, coffee shops) or in areas where existing WiFi facilities may be opportunistically taken advantage of (malls, multi- tenant office campuses). The hot spot connectivity would be attractive to offset the capacity limitations of 3G. The 3G mobile billing and wide-area network management (e.g., homing, hand-off control, authentication, resource allocation/management, etc.) capabilities could address some ofthe shortfalls that are limiting the capability of WiFi to evolve into a platform for mas s wireless access. Adopting such a strategy would offer the mobile provider the opportunity to tap new service markets. For example, allow scheduled high peed file transfers (e.g., queue email with big attachments for downloading when opportunistically near WiFi hot spot); or, allow more adaptive power management strategies (e.g., switch from WiFi to 3G service to conserve battery power with more graceful performance degradation, or vice versa if external power becomes available). These and other services could increase the revenue opportunities available to the wireless service provider. Additionally, adopting such a strategy would be defensive. Co-opting the competition is a well known strategy. If WiFi succeeds, then 3G networks that fail toimplement WiFi-like functionality will lose service revenues to WiFi enabled competitors. On the other hand, integrating WiFi into a 3G network may increase deployment costs. The business/service model will be more complex and many adjustments will be required within mobile firms. When set against the potential revenue benefits, however,these higher coordination/adjustment costs do not seem likely to be overly substantial.
C. Success of WiFi is potentially good for multimedia content
Multimedia content benefits from higher bandwidth services so the ability to support higher speed wireless access may help encourage the development of broadband multimedia content. On the other hand, the lack of a clear business model for deploying broadband services over a WiFi network may raise concerns for how content would be aid for and/or digital rights management issues. The digital rights management issues are perhaps more difficult to control (from a content provider's perspective) in a more decentralized, end-user centric environment than in a centralized service provider network (i.e., contrast Napster to AOL). The vertical integration model of 3G may offer greater control which might actually encourage more content production. This is a complex question that merits additional thought. It is premature to posit which of the two ffects are likely to be larger.
This article offers a qualitative comparison of two wireless technologies that
could be viewed simultaneously as substitute and/or complementary paths for evolving to
broadband wireless access. The two technologies are 3G, which is the preferred upgrade
path for mobile providers, and WiFi, one of the many WLAN technologies.
The goal of the analysis is to explore two divergent world views for the future of
wireless access and to speculate on the likely success and possible interactions between
the two technologies in the future.
While the analysis raises more questions than it answers, several preliminary
conclusions appear warranted. First, both technologies are likely to succeed in the
marketplace. This means that the wireless future will include heterogeneous access
technologies so equipment manufacturers, service providers, end-users, and policy
makers should not expect to see a simple wireless future. Second, we expect 3G mobile providers to integrate WiFi technology into their networks. Thus, we expect these technologies to be complementary in their most successful mass market deployments.
Third, we also expect WiFi to offer competition to 3G providers because of the
lower entry costs associated with establishing WiFi networks. This may take the form of
new types of service providers (e.g., Boingo), in end-user organized networks (e.g.,
FreeNet aggregation or municipal networking), or as a low-cost strategy for a wireline
carrier to add wireless services. The threat of such WiFi competition is beneficial to
prospects for the future of last mile competition, and will also encourage the adoption of
WiFi technology by 3G providers as a defensive response. Our analysis also suggested a number of areas where further thought and research would be beneficial. These include the obvious questions of how to integrate 3G and WiFi networks or how to add the appropriate billing/resource negotiation infrastructure to WiFi to allow it to become a wide-area service provider platform. These also include several more remote questions such as which style of technology/business approach is favored by the rapid pace of wireless technology innovation or which is more likely to favor the development of complementary assets such as broadband content.